The New Senate Numbers And The Abbott Government

As counting of the 2013 federal election winds down, the Senate election result is now clear.

There is a small chance of change in Western Australia where the Greens have asked for a recount following Scott Ludlam’s defeat.

Because of the fixed terms of the Senate, it will be another nine months before the complexion of the Senate changes. Current senators remain in place until June 30, 2014.

The current numbers are:

The Current Senate – until June 30, 2014
Party/Group No.
Coalition
34
A.L.P.
31
Greens
9
D.L.P. (Madigan)
1
Independent (Xenophon)
1
TOTAL
76



In this configuration, the Greens hold the balance of power. The Greens-ALP combination has a blocking majority. It ensures that Abbott government legislation to repeal the carbon pricing arrangements and the mining tax will most likely be rejected by the Senate.

This will be the state of the parties in the Senate after July 1, 2014:

The New Senate – from July 1, 2014
Party/Group No.
Coalition
33
A.L.P.
26
Greens
9
Palmer United Party
3
D.L.P. (Madigan)
1
Liberal Democrats (Leyonhjelm)
1
Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party (Muir)
1
Family First (Day)
1
Independent (Xenophon)
1
TOTAL
76

 

In this configuration, the ALP-Greens combination becomes less important and power shifts to a collection of minor groups and independents.

The crossbenches next July will contain 17 senators. There will be 9 from the Greens, 3 from the Palmer United Party and 5 others.

*

A Senate Majority

The magic number in the Senate is 39.

When everyone turns up, a vote of 39-37 is needed to pass any motion, including on legislation.

Each of the 76 senators has a deliberative vote, including the Senate President. The President does not have a casting vote.

This is different from the House of Representatives where the Speaker does not cast a deliberative vote and only votes when there is a tie.

In the Senate, a vote of 38-38 is declared lost. Either side can block a motion from the other side if they can muster 38 votes.

On July 1 next year, the Senate will change quite dramatically:

  • For the first time since 2008, the ALP (26) and the Greens (9) will lose their combined Senate majority. This means they will also lose their blocking majority.

  • The government will be 6 votes short of the majority it needs to pass its legislation and win the votes that decide how the Senate operates. This is important because a hostile Senate can block, delay or amend government legislation. It can set up committees to inquire into bills or issues of the day. It can control the operations of the Senate and determine what it debates and when.

  • The government will easily get its way if the ALP supports it. It will easily get its way if the Greens support it. However, on the most contentious issues of the day, it is unlikely that the Abbott government will get much joy from the ALP and the Greens.

  • Hence, the 8 other members of the crossbench will be of vital importance to the Abbott government. Any 6 of them can ensure the passage of its legislation or other motions, assuming the ALP and the Greens are opposed. The balance of power in the Senate will be shared by the Greens and these 8 senators.

  • Because Abbott will need 6 crossbench votes, at least one of the Palmer United members will be needed on any bill opposed by the ALP and the Greens. Effectively, the 3 PUP senators will exert more influence than the other crossbenchers, especially if they vote together. The discipline of the PUP senators will be one of the most interesting aspects of the new Senate. Their ability to influence legislation may be further enhanced if Clive Palmer also has a voice in the lower house.

*

What if a recount in Western Australia changes the result?

The possibilities of proportional voting are endless, particularly this year when complex preference deals amongst the micro parties have produced a batch of unknown senators.

However, it appears that if Pratt (ALP) and Wang (PUP) are not elected, then Ludlam (Greens) and Dropulich (Sports Party) will be.

Then the Senate result could be:

The New Senate – from July 1, 2014
Party/Group No.
Coalition
33
A.L.P.
25
Greens
10
Palmer United Party
2
D.L.P. (Madigan)
1
Liberal Democrats (Leyonhjelm)
1
Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party (Muir)
1
Family First (Day)
1
Australian Sports Party (Dropulich)
1
Independent (Xenophon)
1
TOTAL
76



In this situation, there would be 6 individual crossbenchers who could deliver a majority to the Abbott government and the Palmer United Party’s influence would be lessened.

In practice, whether a recount changes the result is probably irrelevant. In either scenario, the ALP-Greens have a combined 35 votes. The government has 33 and will need 6 of the 8 crossbenchers to get its way.

*

The Bizarre And Internecine World Of Minor Parties And Independents

The crossbench that takes office on July 1 will be the most numerous and diverse in the history of the Australian Senate, although it appears that most of them will lean to the political Right.

The history of fringe and micro political parties, particularly those on the Right, is that they tend to fragment. The fate of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in the 1990s is an instructive case.

Already, there have been signs of disagreement in the PUP. The Tasmanian Senator-elect, Jacqui Lambie, may turn out to be more independently-minded than Clive Palmer would prefer. What path will Glenn Lazarus take? Will political life suit a senator with a sporting culture background of hybrid individualism and team-work? And if Palmer wins Fairfax, the party discipline of PUP’s 4 representatives will be a matter of great interest.

Alliances between fringe right-wing groups tend to be transitory and based on a complex combination of ideological preoccupations, personal relationships and deal-making. Throw in some government pork barrelling and vote buying and anything is possible. Senator Brian Harradine’s experience, especially with the Howard government, is the exemplar of how this can work.

The eight crossbench senators are a fascinating mix. Aside from the DLP’s John Madigan and the independent Nick Xenophon, we have no experience of how they might act. Will Xenophon or one of the others emerge as a powerbroker, a deal-maker, the person who can weld this disparate group into a coherent force?

The role of David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats) could be important. He has already presented as articulate, calm and politically nuanced. He has a history of powerbroking amongst the micro parties. Philosophically, he is hostile to many areas of government regulation. He could be a thorn in the side of the Coalition.

Family First’s Bob Day is a former Liberal. His failure to win preselection for Mayo in 2008 – against now Assistant Minister Jamie Briggs – precipitated his departure from the Liberal Party. He could be the most government-friendly of all the crossbenchers but then he risks being sidelined if he is perceived as a government stooge.

Of the eight, Ricky Muir, from Victoria, is the most unknown. A previously unemployed Gippslander, he ran on a platform of road safety and the rights of four-wheel drive vehicle owners.

The government’s treatment of the crossbenchers will be important.

  • Will they get extra staff?
  • What role will the government play in assisting them to do their jobs?
  • What consultative mechanisms will be put in place?
  • Who will the government delegate to schmooze these senators?

Over the next 9 months, we have to wonder what advice the crossbenchers will receive. Who are they listening to?

The attitude the crossbench senators adopt towards their positions will be equally intriguing. Will they bang on about their pet issues and demand favours in return for their vote? To what extent will they even try to get across the vast range of issues that come before the Senate?

Who will be the stuntman of this group? Former Family First Senator Steve Fielding distinguished himself through a series of increasingly more ridiculous publicity stunts. Nick Xenophon is a past master at getting the media’s attention but now he has a lot of extra competition.

And how will the newcomers go when they encounter a media that will happily publicise their idiosyncrasies and hold the rope whilst they hang themselves?

It’s fun times ahead. For the Abbott government, it’s cat-herding time.

Print Friendly